The Chronicle Review

Do We Cheapen Philosophy When We Use It as Therapy?

Pui Yan Fong for The Chronicle Review

July 27, 2015

I teach an undergraduate class on Nietzsche, a philosopher who has a reputation for captivating young minds. After one class, a student came to see me. There was something bothering her. "Is it OK to be changed by reading a philosopher?" she asked. "I mean, do you get inspired by Nietzsche? Do you use him in your life?"

You have to be careful about questions like that, and not only because the number of murderers claiming Nietzsche as their inspiration is higher than I would like. What the student usually means is: "Nietzsche mocks careful scholarship: Can I, in his spirit, write my paper however the hell I want and still get a good grade?" In this case, though, the student knew perfectly well how to write a scholarly paper. She wanted to do something else too: Be Nietzschean!

Here’s my line, for what it’s worth: You can do whatever you want in life — take inspiration from The Smurfs, for all I care — but I’m here to teach you how to read a philosopher, slowly and carefully, which is not an easy thing to do. If you want to be inspired by Nietzsche, you have to read him precisely, to make sure that it is Nietzsche who inspires you, not a preconception or a misappropriation or a scholarly reading, mine or anybody else’s, which is vulnerable to the interpreter’s peculiar agenda or the fashions of the hour. And what if, when you read him carefully, you find that he actually wrote things you think are false, wrong-headed, racist or sexist? Don’t choose between inspiration and careful scholarship, I say: Choose both.

Notice: I am implying that if you get inspired by misreading someone, or by swallowing false claims, then you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing. But, of course, you might get inspired to do great things by misinterpretations or questionable claims. (Nietzsche could have told you that.) Notice, too: I work in an intellectual environment in which young people think that applying philosophy to their own lives is something unusual. It is an oft-repeated idea that philosophy in its modern, professional form has become detached from what was, in ancient times, a founding ideal: to teach people how to live well. In today’s university, the emphasis is on the search for the truth about whichever subject lies at hand, regardless of how, if at all, such truths change what you do when you leave the classroom. So while students often report finding philosophy "therapeutic," they do so in passing, somewhat guiltily. Perhaps they worry that the moment I hear they’re emotional Nietzsche-users rather than cold Nietzsche-scrutinizers, my opinion of them will fall. Perhaps, against my better judgment, and in spite of being a user myself, they are right.

In 2008, Alain de Botton co-founded the School of Life, "devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture."

Professional philosophers don’t present themselves as particularly wise or as people to turn to for advice about how to live. And why should we? That’s not what we were trained for when we were students, and it’s not what we promise in the prospectus. I remember, as a student, asking a philosophy professor something about what I should do the following year — whether I should continue with my studies or move on to something else. "That’s not a philosophy question," she said. "That’s a life question. I can’t answer that." I know what she meant, now more than ever, having faced such questions myself. You can’t expect a knowledge of philosophy to guide you through the big decisions about what to do with your life. But I can’t help wondering whether something has gone astray when "philosophy" questions and "life" questions are so easy to pull apart.

The Stuart Low Trust is a London-based charity that aims to promote health. It was founded in 1999, taking its name from a young man who had schizophrenia and killed himself after, as the charity puts it, "failing to find the help he needed." The trust provides services and facilities for vulnerable people, including those who suffer from certain mental-health conditions and those who experience social isolation or emotional distress. For a number of years, I have volunteered for the trust’s Philosophy Forum, which meets most Sunday afternoons of the academic year. The forum is not itself intended to be therapy, or an outlet for participants to philosophize about the sorts of issues they may be experiencing. It is intended to be a philosophy forum, just like any other. I suspect it’s the best thing I’ve done with my philosophical education, though at the end of a session I often feel flat and frustrated.

The format of the forum meetings emphasizes participation and, compared with many university settings, minimizes what you might call the "teaching" element. There is a short talk at the start, introducing a philosophical topic, followed by a question: Do we have free will? When is it permissible to kill an animal? Does getting what you want make you happy? We break up into small groups to talk it over, then get back together.

As the format has settled, so have the questions that I ask myself after a session is done. There are many versions, but the best summary would probably be this one: Is there something about philosophy that makes it particularly suited to this kind of forum? Sometimes I think there isn’t. We get people together to talk, to listen, to share ideas — it could be anything from physics to photography, and the fact that it happens to be philosophy simply reflects, by chance, the interests of the forum’s founders and the trust’s contact list. But sometimes I think there is something particular about philosophy. A forum on theoretical physics or 20th-century history, requiring technical skills and a body of knowledge, would threaten to divide the room into experts and nonexperts, with participants as passive consumers of predigested knowledge and volunteers as their feeders. I don’t think philosophy can look like that; I know our forum doesn’t. On the other hand, an art forum that asked them to paint, sketch, or take pictures wouldn’t have the same factual content. The answer to the question "Do we have free will?"— whatever it might be — cannot just be a matter of creativity or personal taste.

But the more I think it matters that we are doing philosophy, rather than any other activity which gets people talking, the more it seems to matter whether we, as a group, are doing the philosophy well. And that’s an uncomfortable thought, because to think about the Philosophy Forum as a kind of amateur alternative to the university — a way of doing philosophy that prioritizes a therapeutic or true-for-me-if-not-true-for-you element over a truth-seeking or fact-finding element — would not only patronize the participants but also undermine the very thing I want the forum to offer: an opportunity to use philosophy to get something right about our lives. But if we are using philosophy to get something right, then a repulsive thought that cannot be true begins to hover in the background: that my colleagues and students, with their formal philosophical training, are somehow better at living than the rest.

If the Stuart Low Philosophy Forum is one answer to what it might look like for philosophy to "change your life," here is another: best-selling books, classes and workshops applying "great works" from "big thinkers" and artists to help improve your work, your relationships, your sex life, your mental health and your sense of community; signs in art galleries telling you that though you might be lonely, sad and flawed, there’s something in this painting that can help; architecture, not in the form of dry tours of great European cathedrals but in the form of holiday homes commissioned by famous architects and available for the public to rent. Another answer is, in other words, Alain de Botton.

De Botton became famous for writing books that apply high culture to everyday concerns: The Architecture of Happiness; The Art of Travel; How to Think More About Sex. His website describes him as "a writer of essayistic books" and approvingly cites a description of his work as the "philosophy of everyday life," with topics ranging from airports to news to travel. Chapters in The Art of Travel combine a high-culture guide and a place: Flaubert for Amsterdam, John Ruskin in London. Likewise, The Consolations of Philosophy applies a philosopher to a life problem: Epicurus for not having enough money, Schopenhauer for a broken heart, Nietzsche for difficulties. Status Anxiety, which examines our fears of how we are perceived by others, is divided into two parts: "Causes," like lovelessness and dependence, and "Solutions," like philosophy and art. (Compare all this with the title of that Ph.D. your friend wrote: "Domestic Arts and Crafts in the Duchy of Brabant: 1183-1482." The Design of Love, de Botton would call it.) The chapters of de Botton’s book on Proust echo the classic "how to" self-help formula: "How to Express Your Emotions" or "How to Take Your Time"; in several, the final paragraph begins with: "The moral?"

But applying the wisdom of big thinkers to life turned out to be only the beginning. In 2008, de Botton co-founded the School of Life, which claims in its mission statement to be "devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture." You can visit the School of Life on Marchmont Street, in the pretty London area of Bloomsbury, near the blue plaques indicating where Lenin, Keynes, Darwin, and the Shelleys used to live. The classes, run by various members of the "faculty," bear trademark de Bottonish titles: "How to Communicate Better in Love," "How to Stay Calm," "How to Make Your Mind Up," "How to Be a Good Leader," "How to Be Creative."

De Botton’s books are honest and open. But he often produces vitriolic reactions, especially from academics and other public intellectuals.

One might imagine a symbiotic relationship between the School of Life and universities that offer more academically rigorous humanities courses. Some of the authors who publish through the school are highly respected academics trying out writing for a wider audience. Moreover, the school, like the Philosophy Forum, is a vivid illustration of something that is easy to forget amid all the talk of justifying the humanities: Many people whose lives take place firmly beyond the realms of the university care about, and want to know more about, literature, art, and philosophy. De Botton’s books are honest and open. He presents himself not as a guru with all the answers but as a lost soul navigating by the constellations of great thinkers, and he invites you to do the same. A frequent motif in his work, which one thinks academics would appreciate, is the encouragement to pay more attention, or a different kind of attention, to what we take for granted.

But de Botton often produces vitriolic reactions, especially from academics and other public intellectuals. If you’re a graduate student or a professor and you’ve never heard of him before, you probably hate him already, just from the description I’ve given. Now add his success from the age of 23 (a novel, Essays in Love), his French name and his penchant for making disparaging remarks about the academy and the art world, cap it all with the fact that his family is unimaginably wealthy, and the result appears to be that critics feel sweet release from the pressures of holding back. You could make a general compendium of insults just from lines aimed at de Botton, as long as your target is a bit of a ponce: His "huckster’s sincerity" is smarmy and banal; his books contain their "quota of piffle dressed up in pompous language"; "insidious ideas" in "twee prose"; "astonishingly impudent."

Often his credentials are called into question: "And please, before I say another word, do let’s stop calling him a philosopher," writes the author of "Why Alain de Botton Is a Moron." A New York Times review accused de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work of trespassing on the dignity of people who have to earn money to survive. One focus was the passage in which he is fed lunch by the manager of a manufacturing plant who bores him, perhaps partly on account of the manager’s "surprisingly intense pride in the plant and its workers." To the Times reviewer, de Botton replied: "I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move that you make." It was an uncharacteristic outburst, perhaps, and subsequently a source of embarrassment to its author, but everyone seems to know about it.

De Botton does not see what he offers as academia-lite. The sales material at the school promises to connect us with "big thinkers": "A big thinker isn’t just someone who is famous for their ideas. What makes them big is that they get at things which matter to us personally." The connection between "big thinking" and "what matters to us personally" accounts, I think, for the pattern that emerges in so many of de Botton’s titles: Take ___ [some well-known intellectual topic] and apply it to ___ [something you do or want or worry about all the time, something that matters to you], e.g., How [Proust] Can [Change Your Life] or [Consolations] of [Philosophy]. For de Botton, the tags taken from formal education are a throwdown, not a rip-off: You could have a school and a faculty, a classroom and a campus, doing this. Are you sure you know why you don’t?

I’m not. One has to be careful making generalizations about a profession whose members are selected, in part, for how good they are at finding counterexamples. But, in some moods, I feel certain that if all the professional philosophers stopped writing philosophy altogether — if a freak accident muted the profession, its students and its publishers — astonishingly few non-philosophers would notice. No industry anxiously awaits the latest philosophical innovations. No general public hangs on our words. Even within the profession, the average philosophy publication is cited once and probably only to be mischaracterized, cast aside, or pigeonholed by a new author, whose work, in turn, will meet the same fate. Sometimes, even as I work on my next one, I imagine a philosophy publication as one of those giant icebreaking vessels that rides at the head of an Arctic convoy, powering a path homeward through the frozen ocean. Only in this case, the ocean is blocked not by ice but by other icebreaking vessels, bobbing, marooned where they ran out of fuel, just as this one will maroon somewhere, adding more debris for the next. And in this case, there is no clear sense of home — only homesickness. Ghastly glorious, these vessels.

I am struck, in such moments, by a startling contrast between the intelligence, seriousness, and energy that is poured into this activity by the professionals and its lack of bite in the world. It is true that there is a public appetite for philosophy. But I am confident that the books and journals that have been written up to now can satisfy it adequately. These thoughts do not, perhaps, reflect my considered opinion of my work and that of my colleagues. But I think them often enough that I’m not about to attack de Botton for dumbing down or trivializing my profession. I never thought it would be difficult to find something good in the School of Life. It is an attempt to connect philosophy — as well as art and high culture — with the lives of everyday people in a way that makes them better, more meaningful or more bearable.

If I unthinkingly separate "serious" philosophers like Plato or Hume on the one side, and "pop philosophy" like de Botton on the other — I promise I did no such thing when I began to read them all, indiscriminately, as a high school student. Back then, de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy introduced me to new thinkers and new thoughts, in language I could easily understand, with examples and anecdotes I can still recall: Schopenhauer on sexual love or Epicurus on the pleasures of friendship and a simple diet. De Botton, Hume, Russell — it was all philosophy. In philosophy, unlike the science classes I nonetheless enjoyed, the questions were the ones I asked myself when school was done. In philosophy, unlike in the literature classes I nonetheless loved, the purpose and the methods were clear. This is the promise I want to be able to make, and keep, to the participants at the Philosophy Forum. The School of Life offered, perhaps uniquely, to be able both to help me make sense of this promise and to show me the way to keep it. I signed up for its class on "How to Make a Difference" (£45).

My class takes place on a weekday afternoon, which already says something about who might attend. Most seem to be in their mid-30s and starting out on a new phase, moving from something in London’s vast, impersonal commercial sector to something with a social focus. We are asked to arrive with a "difference" we want to make. The class leader, John-Paul, is a journalist, the author of, among other things, a book called How to Change the World. He is also an accredited life coach. The class is a mixture of practical tips, conceptual distinctions, anecdotes, words of wisdom, and inspirational puff.

John-Paul asks us to think about the sorts of negative thoughts that arise when we want to achieve something: "I’m not ready"; "I’m too young/old"; "nobody wants that." He asks us to think of someone who wouldn’t have taken any notice of that kind of negative thinking and then to internalize that person and use him to speak against these negative thoughts. I’m trying. But I’m struggling. Aren’t there moments when I really am too young? When it really is true that something has been said one hundred times before and nobody needs to hear it again? John-Paul goes so far as to say that these negative thoughts might be appropriate at certain times, but he does not follow this through to its obvious conclusion: that we need to know when the right time is — and we don’t. When is blocking out negative thinking, if that is even possible, just ignoring plain common sense?

One thing I notice about my class — and about de Bottonism in general — is that it finds it difficult to tell you that you are wrong about something. You are told in the class that you are "the expert" about what matters to you, that there’s "no intrinsically good or bad thing to do," that what matters is the "meaning and purpose" that you put on it. You can lose sight of the things that matter to you or fail to appreciate what you have. You can be misled, on the wrong path, disoriented, hindered, distracted. But you can never just be wrong.

A cynical thought is that the school avoids direct criticism of its students because that would be bad for business. A teacher who tells her students that they aren’t good enough and should probably give up will be a teacher without students. You can certainly indulge such cynicism at the School of Life’s shop. £50 buys an "imperfection pot" — literally a pot — which is described as "something to turn to for support and inspiration," its gray-green color "associated with calm in Buddhism." You can buy "philosophical honey," that is, honey from places in Greece where philosophers came from — Cyprus for "Zeno of Cyprus" (the founder of Stoicism, not the one with the paradoxes who came from modern-day Italy). That’s £25 for less than a pound. A "comfort blanket" costs £180 ("a comfort blanket understands"). Scented candles are "utopia" themed and cost £35 each.

Of course, it’s not as though academics take special pride in their university merchandise. What might be even more troubling, in any case, is that the School of Life is genuinely committed to the idea that we all have some unshakeable core which only we can know, and which is the ultimate source of our values — and against which nobody can argue. An employee of the School of Life tells the audience at one event that its mission is to promote "emotional intelligence" via "the best ideas from writers, philosophers, and artists." The idea is right there in de Botton’s Consolations. The book from which it takes its title is Boethius’ sixth-century AD Consolation of Philosophy. But for de Botton there must be many consolations, and you must pick the one that best suits you. Does it matter that the consolation for the broken heart (Schopenhauer) was, at least in principle, radically rejected by the consolation for difficulties (Nietzsche)? Can one be consoled for both? This is what it comes down to: Why should this matter if it "works for you"? Why should Nietzsche’s disagreement with Schopenhauer over sex and whether life is worth living be of any significance, if someone reads Consolations and finds consolation for his broken heart? When it comes to making us feel better, a messy argument about what’s true and what’s false can just get in the way.

Once we have described the "difference" we want to make, John-Paul insists that we get clear about exactly what it is and why we want this one, of all things. We have to explain it to one another in small groups. Mine sounds grandiose, inchoate, and absurd, at least to me, though the former management consultant I’m talking with is trying her best to be sympathetic. I want to make a difference through philosophy. I’ve taught philosophy to children, to students at all stages, to retirees; I’ve done philosophy as stand-up comedy and philosophy as theater. If people reflected more on themselves and their world, thought more about what they knew and what they did, I often find myself thinking, then we just couldn’t have a society that looks like this one — a society in which we seem to be getting it wrong, knowing that we’re getting it wrong, and doing nothing about it.

When the best students tell me they want to be philosophers (they always mean professional, academic philosophers), my feelings sometimes combine sorrow at the waste of their talents and frustration that, despite their intelligence, they haven’t seen through it. It’s not that I have some particular idea of what they ought to become instead: artists or bankers or lawyers or solid contributors to the economy. It’s that philosophy, for me, hasn’t delivered on its promise, or the promise I thought it was making some years ago: to be the very activity in which you didn’t have to choose between what was true and what mattered to you. It’s that I worry they won’t find what I was looking for.

Philosophy may sometimes be difficult in the sense that it is difficult to understand, that it overcomplicates or requires technical expertise, that it is written for those in the know with no thought spared for the rest. Those who bring such thoughts to a wider audience show their skill in cutting through this difficulty as swiftly and painlessly as possible. But popularizing it cannot come at the cost of another kind of difficulty: that it can take your dearest thoughts — your politics, your science, your hope or your affections — and shake them up or cut them down. This, not a lack of academic rigor, is what I find troubling in the de Botton universe, in so much popular philosophy, and, indeed, in much of the professional work I read. It’s also the best I can do to explain the impulse to "correct" the student who wants to be a Nietzsche-user, not a Nietzsche-scholar. I’m not worried that you’re going to get Nietzsche wrong. I’m worried that you won’t let him unsettle you. I’m worried that it won’t hurt.

The moral? Wherever we find philosophy we find, on the one hand, the pursuit of truth and, on the other, some promise to make a difference or to guide us toward a better or a more fulfilled life. Those who want these sides to come together harmoniously have so far been disappointed. But whenever one side claims victory, the defiant voice of the other can still be faintly heard. For the moment, then, perhaps the best option is to keep moving from one to the next, back and forth, dissatisfied with each. Is it enough? That might be a "philosophy question" and a "life question," too.

Tom Stern teaches in the philosophy department at University College London. This is an abridged version of an essay that first appeared in The Point.